- Robert Morales
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Mike Gonzaga lost his father before his senior year at Crespi High School in Encino, Calif. He recently recalled that a coach there helped him through the ordeal.
It therefore wasn't surprising to see the emotion on Gonzaga's face when he described the Celt Boxing Club, a team he coaches made up of high school-age amateur boxers.
Most of the team are from Crespi -- they're known as the Celts -- but it isn't mandatory to attend that particular school, as high school boxing is not sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation, the state's governing body for high school sports.
Several Los Angeles-area high school boxing clubs have popped up over the past few years. Their events are sanctioned by USA Boxing. On Friday, Celt Boxing Club will play host to an event called "Celt Fight Night" involving six clubs at L.A. Pierce College in nearby Woodland Hills.
Although it is not a prerequisite, Celt has its share of kids who have had social problems with drugs, alcohol and gangs. Of its 23-boxer roster, several fit into that realm.
Gonzaga, 34, has a brother who was a "big-time" gang member, so he knows whereof he speaks. And because Gonzaga had help dealing with the aftermath of losing his father, he wants to help those high school students in need of guidance.
"My group is very diverse," said Gonzaga, a 1993 graduate of Crespi. "A lot of them were at-risk kids. I've [had] a kid who had drug problems. I've had kids that wanted to kill themselves. I've got kids who still, in the middle of practice, have to leave early because they gotta go see a psychologist. I got a kid whose father was out of his life for 12 years."
Gonzaga tells his team that being a professional football player or a prize-fighter is not going to last forever. "But you are going to be a man the rest of your life," Gonzaga said. "One day you're going to be a great father, one day you're going to be a good husband. That's the kind of stuff that I want to teach them to to teach them how to be a man. That's what makes me keep coming back, is seeing these kids change for the better."
Gonzaga has a background in mixed martial arts -- kickboxing and stick-fighting, in particular. But he looked good working the pads with one young boxer last week at the sprawling 360 Gym in Reseda, Calif. He has seen his team progress since its 2006 inception, but he's most proud of what they are becoming outside the ring.
"Just seeing these kids succeed in life, that's what's priceless for me," said Gonzaga, who's also an assistant football coach at Crespi.
The change in the life of Jibreel King has been evident. Only recently, King was a victim of a surprise attack at his high school in the Antelope Valley, more than 50 miles from the 360 Gym.
King, just 15, said he had been hanging out with a group of youths who belonged to a gang. Unbeknownst to him, they had enemies -- who King referred to as quasi members of a rival gang -- at their high school.
He was sitting down in the "lunch quad" and he was approached.
"I remember that one guy came up to me asking me where was I from, or asked me did I say something about his gang," King said. "Before I could respond, he hit me."
King said he was on medication that day and wasn't fully himself before the attack.
"I started standing up slow to take my backpack off to defend myself," King said. "And somebody else hit me in the back. When I was aware that somebody else hit me, they both ran."
King had a mild concussion. Once he got the cobwebs out, he said he wasn't mad. He realized why the incident went down.
"If I wasn't hanging out with these people, then they wouldn't have asked me where I was from and that wouldn't have happened," King said.
King's mother, Tasha Day, had previously met Gonzaga at an amateur card. After her son, who is 6-0 as an amateur, was attacked, she contacted Gonzaga.
Thanks in large part to Gonzaga often driving an hour to pick him up, King makes it to the 360 Gym at least three times a week. He still trains in the Antelope Valley, but his heart is with the Celts.
"Everybody around there is calm and friendly, and it's like a new type of crowd that I need to expose myself to instead of just hanging out with the same people -- the same people I know that's going to get me in trouble," King said. "Obviously Mr. Gonzaga, he's been giving me his hand. He has been helping me out a lot. He's been doing a lot for me, things that I would never think that a coach would do."
King said he is hopeful of soon transferring to Crespi high school.
Another newcomer to Celt Boxing is DueVone Broomfield. He has been raised by his mother, Latishe Anderson, as his father, a former gang member, was killed by a rival in a car-jacking when Broomfield was just 2.
Broomfield is 3-3 in the ring as an amateur. He started more than two years ago with another high school club and recently joined Gonzaga at Celt.
"I noticed that he is more positive now," said Anderson, who said her son was hanging out with gang members. "[Now], he believes in himself."
Broomfield, 16, admits that he likes to fight. Now he is doing it in the ring instead of the streets.
"Basically, I was always getting in trouble and I got tired of it," he said. "I thought I might as well fight and not get in trouble for it. It's [Celt that's] keeping me out of trouble because if I'm in trouble, my mom won't let me box."
Then fighters such as former champion James Toney, who trains at 360 Gym and at times helps Gonzaga train the kids, wouldn't be able to see him box Friday.
Neither would the likes of heavyweight contender Chris Arreola and former champion Shane Mosley, both of whom are scheduled to attend.
Gonzaga is footing much of the bill for this club, but he pointed out that former champion Wayne McCullough and Crespi alum Jeff Suppan of the Milwaukee Brewers have contributed to the cause. Suppan won't be on hand Friday, but former Crespi and Cal football star Russell White will be.
Gonzaga said he is hopeful that boxing will eventually become a sport sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation. For now, he will work his magic on the club level.
Based on some of the aforementioned results, he has been waving that wand well.
Robert Morales covers boxing for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.